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where is the heartbeat in the Balanchine legacy?


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#16 Ari

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Posted 26 May 2002 - 06:46 PM

I agree with the other posters who said that Homans's argument is nothing new and that she offers less support for her thesis than other writers have. Like these other writers, she doesn't go one step further and take into account the realities of running a ballet company, especially a large, internationally-ranked one.

She calls for more dancers who worked with Balanchine to take over rehearsals. Of the ten people listed in the program as assistant ballet masters and teachers (in addition to Martins), only one, Russell Kaiser, did not work with Balanchine (and I don't believe he rehearses Balanchine ballets anyway). Homans ignores a couple of important considerations in the choice of such people. One is that the head of the company, be it Peter Martins or anyone else, must be the ultimate authority on the company's style, and he cannot have people working with him who have strong contrary ideas, or who—pace Farrell fans—have personalities strong enough to encourage a following that might threaten this authority. In addition, Balanchine, like any artist, was always changing elements of his style, and a member of the NYCB of 1952 is going to remember ballets being danced very differently from a member from 1962, or 1972. Martins has, understandably, chosen to preserve the style that he remembers (circa 1967-1983), and has gathered other dancers from that era to help him. Even if Homans prefers an earlier style (and I doubt she remembers it—she was, I believe, a student at SAB in the 1980s), earlier generations of NYCB dancers are retiring and dying out. Villella himself is in his sixties.

What I do think is a problem at NYCB is the fact that the company's real energy these days is directed towards new repertory while the existing repertory, Robbins as well as Balanchine, is not treated as very important. Result: a certain ho-hum attitude that comes across in performance. If the dancers believed that doing well in a Balanchine ballet would get them promoted, we'd see a change in a hurry. The breakdown of the casting hierarchy in the Balanchine rep, something that Calliope mentioned a couple of months ago, is part and parcel of this neglect. (For those who don't remember this thread, Calliope mentioned that roles—even corps roles— that used to take dancers years to get are now given away to newcomers. There's no sense that it's a privilege, an achievement, to be in the ensemble of Concerto Barocco or Theme & Variations, as opposed to lowly Swan Lake or everybody's-in-it Stars & Stripes.)

Another problem, which the company has always had, is the pressure involved in doing seven performances a week and fifty or so ballets a season. When Martins first took over, he reduced the number of ballets performed, but it's long since been back up to fifty. I don't know why he did this, but it pretty much prevents any ballet from being as carefully rehearsed as it should be, whoever the coaches are.

#17 Ari

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Posted 09 June 2002 - 04:39 PM

Calliope, dancers being thrown into roles is nothing new; it happened in Balanchine's day all the time. I agree it shouldn't have to happen, though. I blame the size of the repertoire that the company dances each season. If they did fewer ballets, they'd have to schedule more performances of each ballet, with alternate casts. This would ensure that there was at least one other dancer prepared to go on in case the scheduled dancer had to drop out.

#18 glebb

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Posted 27 May 2002 - 06:45 AM

In my opinion it's the Robbins rep that might need more help.
His ballets depend so much on perfect timing. That was lacking when I saw 'The Concert' last year. I went to dress rehearsal and saw that the problem was not for lack of trying, but I realized that Mr. Robbins had been so specific and in control of his work that no one can do the job he did.

Balanchine on the other hand was so free and generous with his work in general. It is well known that he was always changing his choreography to suit different dancers, and giving his work away to other companies, etc.

I went to opening night of the spring season last year, as the companion of Vicky Simon. It was an All Balanchine program and I thought the company looked exquisite and impeccable. (I am a spacing freak) and this was obviously a well rehearsed performance.

At the first intermission I went with Ms Simon to meet Barbara Horgan and some others that were not in "Peter's Family". Never the less very important people were there. I met Suki Schorer for the first time. The elegant Karin Von Aroldingen asked Vicki Simon: "As the expert on 'The Four Temperaments' what did you think?" Vicky Simon said: "Very good, maybe just a bit too hard edged".

I thought about that and realized that dancing a little hard edged is more the norm these days, so if that is the only criticism, this ballet is doing quite well.

I still hear Mr. Balanchine's voice on the Balanchine Part 1 and 2 for PBS, saying that his works will look different when he is gone.

#19 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 26 May 2002 - 12:10 PM

I found the points Ms. Homans made in the article defensible up to point, but at the same time, we've been reading about the imminent doom of the Balanchine repertory since 1983. I think the picture is less gloomy. What I've seen from watching is that certain ballets fall into eclipse, then they get refurbished (and other ballets fall into eclipse!). I've also seen dancers who never knew Balanchine or get adequate rehearsal or coaching give stunning performances. And yes, I've also seen ballets deteriorate. But the article reads like recycled Croce or Acocella, ca. 1989 but with fewer details to back up the assertions.

#20 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 27 May 2002 - 08:56 AM

I absolutely agree that it takes an artist to reset a ballet, and it would never hurt to have more voices involved in resetting masterworks rather than less, but I have a problem when people tick off "little details that disappear". As a choreographer, I know that sometimes those little details were never part of the choreography or the choreographer's intention. They were things the dancer added, and they are wonderful, but individual. There are other things that I allow a specific dancer to do in a work because of how they dance, but I would not have another dancer do that in the part.

When I did a study of Agon a while back, I looked at extant representations of the ballet over 40 years, the majority done in his lifetime. There are small changes in every single version, and some major changes as well made by Balanchine. By 1972 at the Stravinsky Festival, Melissa Hayden was prodding Balanchine to go over the male duet to bring it more to the style of the original; she felt he had lost interest. When I saw her coach the ballet in '00, however, she set the male duet from a tape from '73, rather than the earliest version available from '60, and there are many changes between the two.

I'm not advocating carelessness or a perfunctory restaging, but ballets are also not stone, or digital recordings. Their texts are not absolutely stable. The person resetting any ballet takes responsibility as an interpreter. And the moment they do, someone else will take issue with it.

#21 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 27 May 2002 - 04:50 PM

That specific detail is a perfect choice, because Farrell's touching the head to the knee is an addition itself, that Balanchine inserted into the adagio about 15 years after it was choreographed because Farrell could do it. I think Kowroski doesn't do it because her arabesque penchee is enough past six o'clock that if she reaches her head to her knee she'll fall over. (I really think she can't feel when she goes past six o'clock. I've known people like that.) I'd actually prefer it if Kowroski were coached to keep her penchee from going past 180 degrees, but the point is although Farrell's was supervised by Balanchine. both approaches were changes to the original choreography.

#22 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 27 May 2002 - 08:17 PM

I'm not sure that what we are seeing isn't from without as well as from within. Forgive me for using Agon eternally as my example, but it's the one I know in this context better than any other. Agon has changed irrevocably from '57, and only the smallest amount of that change is within the steps themselves. Part of the reason we can't get the Agon of 1957 back is because the dancers don't have any of the same social dances in their vernacular. We are a different society. Even two decades is long enough for there to be a shift in the cultural milieu. Again, I am not saying that assiduous, loving coaching and advocacy are not absolutely instrumental in dance preservation. Without them, the works are doomed. To take a different example (to everyone's relief!) in a work as recent as Kammermusik No. 2 (ca. 1977, now 25 years old) it would be irresponsible for someone resetting the ballet not to think about the Jazz Age references, not to take into account Balanchine's intentions in the original casting to say nothing of the steps and timing themselves. But the ballet will still never look the same. And the farther history removes us from the date of creation, the more changed the ballet will look.

I can't argue with people's recollections from the time, I will say one has to sift through a great many contradictory ones and decide whom one believes. No, all opinions are not created equal, but I do think in the instant case we have several people with legitimate claims to expertise, including Martins and Farrell. I've seen work from both of them that was excellent and work from both of them that was luckluster.

#23 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 29 May 2002 - 04:17 PM

Just to throw this into the mix, there are comments about ballets and change in this thread

When would you redesign a ballet?

#24 BryMar1995

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Posted 27 May 2002 - 12:10 AM

I thought that Homans overemphasized the Russian emigre influence in making NYCB what it was and is. If Balanchine was the heart of the company, then the dancers, nearly all American, were and are the blood, muscle and bones. To picture NYCB as a transplanted Russian company is a real stretch.

I think it's important that the company try to find a new direction, and new repertory. That's as it should be. Life goes on. Martins seems intent on preserving and creating for the Balanchine dancer. But the Balanchine legacy is just too immense. The work is too great. I wonder if the Balanchine rep is treated with maybe too great a respect in restaging at home - that ithe original intent gets stifled in the desire to preserve it as perfectly as possible. Ballets become mechanical and do lose their heart when treated this way (re--staging of works of Tudor come to mind). I agree that I've seen Balanchine works performed with great artistry outside of State Theater, and maybe that's as it should be as well. I don't think the Balanchine rep will die if it resides with others outside of New York for awhile. And when Martins, Farrell and Hayden and Villella are gone, what then?
Rick

#25 BryMar1995

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Posted 28 May 2002 - 07:37 PM

I adore the Balanchine and Robbins legacy, but I would hate NYCB to become simply a museum. The institution has too much vibrancy and talent and LIFE. The director of any company has a responsibility to the future as well as the past.
Rick

#26 Michael

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Posted 30 May 2002 - 12:58 PM

Jumping into this late:

It's interesting that Homans edits Lincoln Kirstein right out of the history of NYCB and of SAB. This is rather consistent with the "Hagiography of Mr. B," Balanchine as "Genius" element of her article. But in fact I think the colaboration between Kirstein and Balanchine is one of the keys to understanding the history of the Company.

Re Martins -- The fact that we can recognize Balanchine's company in the company that exists today; that the Ballets continue to be performed -- sometimes the better, sometimes the worse for wear, but still recognizably themselves -- is a major tribute to Peter Martins' leadership. Look at the Royal Ballet and its Ashton repertory by way of contrast and Thank Heaven we had Martins here and not some American version of Kenneth MacMillain to take over the legacy.

#27 Calliope

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Posted 26 May 2002 - 10:46 AM

I agreed with one line in particular from the article, the one about so many of the Balanchine dancers (Hayden, Villella, Farrell...) not being a part of the daily NYCB activities, that they're working elsewhere. But on the flipside, there are many former dancers from that same era working, most notably, Rosemary Dunleavy, who despite the odds, has done a remarkable job.

I think it's inevitable when someone passes on and there wasn't an "obvious" choice for someone to take over, it's always controversial. But times are far different now than they were back when Mr. B was alive. There's no cold war anymore, ballet has become a money making machine, when (at least I think) back then it was expected not to make much money. The Nutcracker now competes with $10 Harry Potter movie tickets.

What I've always had a hard time with at NYCB is why we don't/can't see a NEW Balanchine piece brought back. The coming back ballets they feature are usually only out the rep for a few seasons. The 93 Balanchine Celebration was so magnificent b/c it brought pieces up that weren't seen (and haven't since been seen) in ages.

I think the toll of losing Stanley Williams will have a far greater impact on the next generation. Gone is a master of a teacher.

But, alas, the Balanchine legacy at NYCB may be stale but as noted, it is quite nice that the rest of the country is enjoying it as it should be.

#28 Calliope

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Posted 29 May 2002 - 01:27 AM

I was talking to someone about the article last night and she said, well in another 50 years there won't be anybody who remembers "how it was when Balanchine was around" and they'll be a repeat article talking about Martins!

#29 Calliope

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Posted 29 May 2002 - 07:38 AM

"NYCB is not a workshop for new choreography, it is not A choreographer’s company"

I think it was always intended to be a workshop for new choreography, wasn't it?

#30 Calliope

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Posted 02 June 2002 - 02:46 PM

I think the timing was appropriate. Here's a company that's spending all this money on new works that are hardly ever seen again and yet the let the main staple of the company's rep fall by the wayside.
I'm not sure there's ever a "good" time for criticism, but it also is press, and sometimes the bad press brings people in as well.
I doubt the article really had any influence except to maybe spark conversation.


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